When hundreds of activists gathered Monday to protest immigration policy, they went to the same place that’s drawn people wanting to air their views near uptown’s government center for more than four decades: Marshall Park.
Since the park opened in 1973 at Third and McDowell streets, Marshall Park has drawn activists of all stripes, from Tea Party rallies to the Occupy Charlotte and Occupy the Democratic National Convention camp, where people spent weeks living. Teachers have protested for more pay in Marshall Park and activists have gathered there to decry police shootings.
Despite the lack of activity in Second Ward’s sterile government district – there are often more ducks and geese than people in Marshall Park – it’s become Charlotte’s go-to protest spot.
“It’s been an important spot for activism all those years,” said Michael Zytkow, who was a leader of the Occupy movement in 2012 and later ran for Charlotte City Council. “It’s served really well...A lot of people consider it a special place.”
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The 5.5-acre park is set to be redeveloped and replaced with a smaller park just over a third of its size. Mecklenburg County is in talks with a development group called BK Partners to sell the park plus 12 surounding acres for $33.7 million, a deal that’s expected to be finalized in the coming months. BK Partners, led by Peebles Corp., Stantec and Charlotte-based Conformity Corp., plan to build $683 million worth of new development, including 1,070 new apartments, 178 condominiums, two hotels, and 680,000 square feet of office space, along with shops and restaurants.
That’s got people wondering: Where will protesters rally when Marshall Park is no longer an option?
Tom Low, a Charlotte-based architect and urban planner, said that Marshall Park provided a sense of place in an era of urban renewal and redevelopment in uptown Charlotte that saw most of Second Ward – formerly a predominantly black neighborhood called Brooklyn – demolished.
“Back in the era of rampant suburban sprawl, when downtowns were all dead and people complained there was no sense of space,” Low said, “That was kind of the test: When the revolution happens, does everyone know where to go?”
“In many cities, they were missing,” said Low.
4 acresFirst Ward Park
5.5 acresSecond Ward, Marshall Park
5.4 acresThird Ward, Romare Bearden Park
3 acresFourth Ward Park
BK Partners didn’t respond to a question for more information about the park. The proposed construction timeline calls for several years of building in Second Ward, with the project running through the mid-2020s.
Before the 1970s, the old Charlotte post office – now the federal courthouse uptown – was a frequent site of rallies, according to Observer archives. In 1968, for example, about 300 Johnson C. Smith students burned then-S.C. Gov. Robert McNair in effigy on the lawn there to protest an incident in Orangeburg, where three S.C. State University students were killed.
David Walters, a Charlotte urban design and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte, pointed to the Women’s March in January as a possible model for future Charlotte protests. That march started in First Ward Park, where 10,000 people gathered to walk down Tryon Street to Romare Bearden Park in Third Ward.
“I think we’ll see more of that as First Ward Park becomes more fixed in people’s minds,” said Walters. The park opened in 2015, and Walters predicted that its location adjacent to a light rail stop will lead to it becoming a popular gathering spot for rallies.
“As development builds up around First Ward Park, that will become a very useful starting point,” said Walters.
He also predicted that in several years, the new, 1.77-acre park in Second Ward will still prove to be a useful gathering point for some rallies. A crowd of 250, the estimated size of Monday’s immigration march, would fill such a space much better, which carries an added benefit for organizers, Walters said: “It would end up looking much more impressive if a smaller space is packed.”
Zytkow predicted that the plaza and public spaces around the uptown Government Center and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police headquarters will become frequent focal points.
“The gathering point will be around the government center,” predicted Zytkow. Still, he said, losing Marshall Park will be a blow to the city’s activist community.
“A lot of people will be sad to see it go,” he said.